Petit-Bois says she is a shy person, and the new environment was disorienting. But she was also focused. “My only goal was graduate at 18, go to a great school, get scholarships,” she told me. “I was programmed.” She seemed fortunate in where she had landed: The previous year, Newsweek had named Spring Valley High School one of the 500 best in the country. She placed out of the refugee-transition program, and soon transferred to Spring Valley, enrolled in six AP classes, and finished two years’ worth of credits at once. But outside of the classroom, things were less stable. There were too many kids in the halls and lingering after school. Classes had been moved to the gym.
It had been five years since the Orthodox majority had won control of the school board. They had done so not as public-school parents (virtually all Orthodox children in the district attend private yeshivas), but as taxpayers. The new majority on the board cut taxes and budgets, angering the public-school community. Some of the decisions they made—to lease two public-school buildings to yeshivas, and then put them up for sale; to clean out the district’s reserve fund during a deepening recession—provoked such outrage that even Petit-Bois, a newcomer buried in her books, noticed it. At her aunt’s church, adults would urge one another to vote in school-board elections. “ ‘Parents,’ they’d always say, ‘Let’s go vote for the district, we’re voting against the Jews ’cause they want to cut this and this and this,’ ” Petit-Bois says. “Little by little I understood it.”
Midway through her junior year, something seemed to give way. The school’s deans, who had handled discipline, had been laid off, and many students started arriving at school very late or skipping it entirely. The security staff was also cut, and so fights became more frequent, and students often stayed shut in their classrooms until the halls cleared. Clubs were eliminated, as well as sports teams and the drama program, until the communal life of the schools disappeared and it seemed to Olivia Castor, another Spring Valley High School student, that the school board’s vision of education consisted of little more than “reading, writing, and arithmetic.”
Then those were cut, too. Last year, the kindergarten school day was reduced by half. AP classes and ESL programs fell by the wayside. In the high schools, so many teachers have been laid off that students can’t fill their schedules: Some have five lunch periods and study halls in an eight-period day. This year, the district floated a proposal to eliminate kindergarten altogether and shorten the school day for everyone else. Jean Fields, the principal of Ramapo High School, told me that if that measure were adopted, not a single student would qualify for the Advanced Regent’s Diploma, considered essential for getting into competitive colleges. Almost half of her 1,400 students would no longer be able to graduate in four years, because they simply will not be able to amass enough credits in time. Last week, the district pulled the most draconian cuts off the table, and suggested firing 50 additional teachers and staff members instead. Even this will mean more students who can’t fill their schedules with classes. “It’s not that we don’t care about graduating,” says Castor. “It’s that the tools for us to graduate are being taken away. We don’t have the classes that can give you a chance to compete.”
The simple act of arriving in America from a stressed place puts you in a vivid, complicated relationship with privilege. There are the lottery-ticket odds of landing here but also, often, the vivid comedown from elite status in the old country to a fringe position in the new one. This part of Rockland County has been declining for years, and the middle-class community that once inhabited it has been largely replaced by the Orthodox and by immigrants. There are now only a handful of white students in the public schools, and more than half the children there receive reduced-fee lunches. “A lot of them are from immigrant families, and they’re looking for that better life,” says Fields. “And I don’t know if it’s going to happen.” Many of the refugees are lingering on five- and six-year paths to graduation.
There is a concept in political science called the Curley Effect, named for James Michael Curley, who was the intermittent Irish-American mayor of Boston over an astonishingly long period of time, first elected in 1913 and last elected in 1946. Curley had a special disgust for Boston’s Brahmin Establishment—“a strange and stupid race,” he once called the Wasps—and when in office, he did what he could to compel them to leave. He lavished funds on Irish neighborhoods and systematically neglected Anglo-American ones; he arranged his tax policies to redistribute wealth from the Wasp community to his own; and he kept up a rhetorical war on the Brahmins: “The Anglo-Saxon is a joke.” By his last term, the Yankee flight to the suburbs was complete. The strategy—to use politics to starve a place of resources so that one ethnic group will leave, abandoning it to another—is so strange that the only contemporary example that scholars offer took place in Zimbabwe, where the Mugabe regime seized the land of the last remaining white farmers. Some of the public-school parents have come to see the situation in East Ramapo through a lens similar to this. When the new majority arrived, says former board member Mimi Calhoun, “they stopped seeing the schools just as a burden and started seeing them as a resource to plunder.”